The tonal shift is so sudden, it’s almost impossible to write about the film and preserve the integrity of its surprises
Dir: Camille Griffin. Starring: Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Roman Griffin Davis, Annabelle Wallis, Lily-Rose Depp, Sope Dirisu, Kirby Howell-Baptiste. 15, 92 minutes.
Silent Night features a tonal shift that’s so sudden – that hits as violently as a lightning strike – that it makes it almost impossible to write about the film and preserve the integrity of its surprises. It begins as a light satire of the selfish whims of the British upper-middle class during the festive period. “F***ing Waitrose… never have enough potatoes,” is an early throwaway line delivered with particular venom by Keira Knightley’s Nell. She’s trying to put together the last little bits of her Christmas dinner before a fleet of old university friends turns up at her door. You never quite figure out whether she actually likes these friends or not.
Most of Silent Night’s pleasures are to be found in the strength of its cast – Knightley, whose comic talent is frequently underused, can turn on a kind manic perkiness that’s as endearing as it is absolutely terrifying. It’s a smile that says, yes, if I ever were to murder you, they’d never find the body. Down a narrow country lane comes barrelling Bella (Lucy Punch), the sound of a scoff in human form, and her disinterested girlfriend Alex (Kirby Howell-Baptiste, whose sense of humour is wonderfully subtle). Nell’s husband, Simon (Matthew Goode), is a headless chicken of a man first seen, conveniently, chasing chickens around the garden. Kitty (Davida McKenzie, sister of Thomasin) is a brat of the Veruca Salt kind, screaming something about sticky toffee pudding. Her mother, Sandra (Annabelle Wallis), is the kind of person who likes to follow up offensive jokes with a princess smile.
Everyone in Silent Night is slightly nauseating, though always to different degrees and with different effects – and the film revels in that fact, at first. In the opening scene, we all get to watch them suffer as they’re forced to listen to Michael Bublé’s “The Christmas Sweater”. The closest we get to a kind of empathetic protagonist is Lily-Rose Depp’s Sophie, the American girlfriend of James (Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù), the nominal outsider, and Nell’s son Art (Roman Griffin Davis). It’s a strong follow-up performance for Davis, having made his debut in 2019’s Jojo Rabbit – he’s already dominating the market for child actors who can deliver both cutesy, wide-eyed innocence and forceful sincerity.
But these humorously queasy dynamics can only last so long. There’s an early mention of a “pact” that strikes as quite odd. Someone says something about the Queen being in a place it really doesn’t seem like she should be. Unless? Over in the corner, Sophie’s choking back tears. The truth is eventually spat out, sentence by sentence. Silent Night is the feature debut of Davis’s mother, writer-director Camille Griffin (her two other sons star as Art’s largely brainless siblings). And it’s an ambitious premise to kick off with, as the film slips from comedy into absolute nihilism. The film is grim. And grim in ways that are only accentuated by how innocently the whole thing seems to begin.
Having introduced us to this small pack of clowns, Griffin then must plough ahead into the darkness and hope that her characters aren’t completely stripped of their personalities by the end. It’s like taping three nails to a spoon and calling it a spork. There’s a level of insurmountable impracticality there. The film does, unfortunately, start to collapse in on itself by the end. And then there’s the end itself – despite Silent Night having been written and filmed before the pandemic began (minus some reshoots), it’s extremely difficult not to interpret its ending as a reflection on recent events. The problem is that it makes an already clumsy ending feel downright irresponsible. Silent Night didn’t need to go so far – the reminder of how easily Christmas can turn into disaster is relatable enough on its own.